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Hyperbaric chambers like ones used by local pastors come with risks

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Leading health experts say what the Channel 4 I-Team found two Middle Tennessee pastors doing with hyperbaric chambers could put patients' health at risk.

And there are new allegations that the pastors claimed they were working on a possible cure for cancer, all without a medical license.

Pastors and twin brothers Dale and Gale Hammond call themselves doctors, and they even have it on their business cards, but they don't have a medical license.

They use hyperbaric chambers - devices that even the FDA warns about - and the brothers' critics include the daughter of one of Middle Tennessee's most popular former sheriffs.

The Channel 4 I-Team went undercover to a building behind the brothers' church, where the pastors say they can use hyperbaric chambers to treat everything from hair loss to depression.

"We do hyperbaric oxygen therapy here," said Gale Hammond on our hidden camera.

The FDA warned about hyperbaric chambers just four months ago, and other FDA publications even warn about potential explosions.

A hyperbaric chamber exploded just last year, seriously injuring two people. And a 4-year-old boy and his grandmother were killed at a facility in Florida in 2009.

Two employees of that Florida facility were charged when the boy and his grandmother went inside a chamber and were trapped when it caught fire.

Tom Workman, director of quality assurance and regulatory affairs for the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society, is one of the country's leading experts on hyperbaric chambers.

The devices are used primarily for decompression sickness or carbon monoxide poisoning. When we told him about the chambers we found in the Hammonds' building, he said the more chambers, the higher the chance of fire.

"Yes, this could indeed increase fire risk," Workman said.

Dale Hammond told us off camera there's no risk of fire, but the FDA warned consumers not to be misled by the promotion of hyperbaric oxygen chambers for unsupported claims.

We showed our findings to Dr. Richard Moon, the medical director of the Duke University Center for Hyperbaric Medicine.

"Administration of hyperbaric oxygen needs to be administered after a physician has specifically evaluated that patient in the contexts of whether they need hyperbaric oxygen or not," Moon said.

We also wanted to know what qualifications they have to administer hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

The Hammonds told us over the phone and in person they're natural medicine doctors, but no one is quite clear what that means.

Those in alternative medicine say "NMD," as those business cards read, typically refer to a naturopathic medical doctor. Yet, the practice of naturopathy is banned in Tennessee.

"I'm a DMO: a diving medical officer. I'm already a DMO. It took me four years to get there," Gale Hammond said.

They say they're certified, but when we contacted the international association that certifies diving medical officers, the organization wrote, "We at the International Board of Undersea Medicine are very concerned that a couple of our members may have misrepresented themselves and their credentials for certificates and membership." That statement goes on to say, "Anyone who shows evidence that they willfully misrepresented their credentials will have their memberships immediately revoked."

The International Board of Undersea Medicine said it does have the Hammonds' younger brother, Johnny Hammond, on record as a chamber operator, but the agency adds he has no medical credentials and the course he took, they say, is an entry level course.

The Hammonds also say on their business cards they're members of the ACHM: the American College of Hyperbaric Medicine. We checked, and the ACHM says Dale and Gale Hammond are not members but have taken some online courses with the group.

Experts we talked to say any time you put someone under pressure, there can be complications such as a ruptured ear drum or lung, an air embolism that can sometimes be fatal and even a seizure. That's why appropriate use is so important.

"If it's dealt with in an incorrect fashion, it can actually cause harm. If it's being managed by someone who doesn't know what to do," said Dr. Moon.

When we asked about his credentials, Dale Hammond told the Channel 4 I-Team he helped the late Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker. Barker died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. When we reached the sheriff's daughter, she said the Hammonds sold her father expensive supplements. And, when they learned of his cancer diagnosis, she says they wanted to treat him, saying they thought they had a possible cure.

Sheriff Barker refused.

Experts say the kind of chambers the Hammonds are using are portable chambers, and the Hammonds told us anyone could buy the soft-shell devices online and use them in their home.

But, one of the nation's experts on hyperbaric chambers says that's not true.

"The Food and Drug Administration has also mandated that they are prescriptive use, which means in order to even purchase one, you have to have a prescription from a licensed practitioner and you also have to have a prescription from a licensed practitioner to use it," Workman said.

We watched as patients got in those chambers, sometimes holding what appeared to be masks in their hands.

The Hammonds call those mask-looking devices oxygen concentrators, and the expert we talked to says typically they're used to force even more oxygen into the patient.

"The FDA specifically prohibits the use with enriched air," Workman said.

We asked the Hammonds to answer our questions on-camera, and when they repeatedly denied our requests, we went back to their clinic. But, someone who appeared to be Dale Hammond quickly dodged our camera.

The Hammonds' attorney sent us a letter, saying some of the chambers we saw are hard-shell chambers and are not even hooked up or being used. We're told they were donated to the Hammonds' church to sell. Their attorney also tells us there is no indication they have done anything wrong. And, they say, they have not received any complaints that anyone is being harmed in anyway.

The attorney adds the Hammonds have never claimed to be medical doctors. He says they even have their patients sign a waiver that says they are aware the Hammonds "are not medical doctors and do not diagnose or make any claims to cure or treat any specific disease."

We contacted the Tennessee Health Department about this story, and a spokesman gave us a statement that said, "We can assure you we take the concerns you have raised seriously and will respond appropriately."

Copyright 2013 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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